Why You Should Be in Manual Exposure Mode 99% of the Time When Photographing Birds. Period. « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Why You Should Be in Manual Exposure Mode 99% of the Time When Photographing Birds. Period.

Your Call?

Which of today’s featured images do you like best? Please let us know why you made your choice.

Homer Late Registration Discounts

If you are interested in traveling to Homer, AK with me in FEB/MAR 2023 to photograph Bald Eagles, shoot me an e-mail for late registration discount info. Several folks are in the process of registering so do not tarry. The first IPT is looking sold out as I await the last deposit check.

What’s Up?

We had an excellent morning at Santee Lakes Preserve. There was lots of fire in the mist as the sun peeked over the hills to the east but there were only a few ducks in the right spot. As the morning went on, we had lots of chances on Ring-necked and Wood Ducks and about ten Cinnamon Teal, the most I have ever seen at this location. The eight zillion coots were a problem as they made it difficult to isolate single birds in the still water. We returned to Santee for our afternoon session and enjoyed more of the same. We ended with a session on how to create 1/4 second blurs of a large groups of feeding ducks.

Today is Sunday 22 January 2023, Day 4 of the 3rd San Diego IPT. The forecast for the morning is for clear and sunny with a slight breeze from the east. We will be returning to the spot where we did so well on Friday past. This blog post took about an hour to prepare (including the time spent on the two image optimizations) and makes two hundred ninety-nine days in a row with a new, educational post. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I hope that you too have a great day.

I fly back to Florida this coming Tuesday. Please remember to use my B&H or Bedford’s affiliate programs for your new gear purchases.

There are just two spots left on the 2023 Spoonbill Boat 1-1/2 DAY MINI-IPT. See yesterday’s blog post for details.

The plan is to continue to post every day until the streak reaches one year and one day and then go back to posting every other day.

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Induro GIT 304L Tripod

Out of production for more than two years, BAA just sold its last one. The good news? We have located two more new-in-the-box tripods. They will be available for shipping at the end of January. Best to order yours now to be sure that you get one. We will not run your card until your item ships. The 304L was my go-to tripod for more than a decade. Best to grab order yours right now to avoid being disappointed.

Bedfords Amazing BAA Discount Policy

Folks who have fallen in love with Bedfords can now use the BIRDSASART coupon code at checkout to enjoy a post-purchase, 3% off-statement credit (excluding taxes and shipping charges) on orders paid with a credit card. The 3% credit will be refunded to the card you used for your purchase. Be sure, also, to check the box for free shipping to enjoy free Second Day Air Fed-Ex. This offer does not apply to purchases of Classes, Gift Cards, or to any prior purchases.

Money Saving Reminder

Many have learned that if you need a hot photo item that is out of stock at B&H and would like to enjoy getting 3% back on your credit card along with free 2nd Day Air Fed-Ex Air shipping, your best bet is to click here, place an order with Bedfords, and enter the coupon code BIRDSASART at checkout. If an item is out of stock, contact Steve Elkins via e-mail or on his cell phone at (479) 381-2592 (Central time). Be sure to mention the BIRDSASART coupon code and check the box for Free Shipping. That will automatically upgrade to free 2nd Day Air Fed-Ex. Steve has been great at getting folks the hot items that are out of stock at B&H and everywhere else. The waitlists at the big stores can be a year or longer for the hard-to-get items. Steve will surely get you your gear long before that. For the past year, he has been helping BAA Blog folks get their hands on items like the SONY a 1, the SONY 200-600 G OSS lens, the Canon EOS R5, the Canon RF 100-500mm lens, and the Nikon 500mm PF. Steve is personable, helpful, and eager to please.

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Gear Questions and Advice

Too many folks attending BAA IPTs and dozens of photographers whom I see in the field and on BPN, are — out of ignorance — using the wrong gear, especially when it comes to tripods and more especially, tripod heads. And the same is true in spades when ordering new camera bodies or lenses. My advice will often save you some serious money and may help you avoid making a seriously bad choice. Please know that I am always glad to answer your gear questions via e-mail. If you are desperate, you can try me on my cell at 863-221-2372. Please leave a message and shoot me a text if I do not pick up.

This image was created on 17 January 2023 at La Jolla, CA. While standing at full height, I used the no-longer available (except from BIRDS AS ART) Induro GIT 304L tripod/Levered-Clamp FlexShooter Pro-mounted Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS lens and The One, the Sony Alpha 1 Mirrorless digital camera. ISO 800. Exposure was determined via Zebras with ISO on the rear dial: 1/2500 sec. at f/4 (wide open). When evaluated in RawDigger, the raw file exposure was determined to be dead-solid perfect. AWB at 9:46:19am on a cloudy-bright morning.

Tracking: Expand Spot/AF-C with Bird Face/Eye detection enabled performed perfectly even at 1200mm. Be sure to click on the image to enjoy a high-res version.

Image #1: Brown Pelican landing — sky background

Getting the Right Exposure in White Sky Conditions

If you shoot the meter when photographing birds in flight in low light/white sky conditions, your images will be much too dark, nearly two stops under-exposed. Here is how to avoid that. Set the wide open aperture. Pick a shutter speed, ideally 1/2500 or 1/3200 second. Now point your lens at the white (I call them “white” skies, but they are usually very light gray) sky, and raise the ISO until the analogue scale indicates an exposure that is two stops greater then the sky.

After you make a few images, do a histogram and blinkies (highlight alert warnings) checks and then adjust your ISO as needed. It is rare that you will need less light; you will often need more light. Then remember that you will need to adjust your exposure settings depending on the tonality of the subject:

1- Birds with bright white in their plumages need less light to be properly exposed than middle-toned birds do.

2- Dark birds (without any bright highlights) need more light to be properly exposed than middle-toned birds do.

In an ideal world, and to solidify what you have learned, you will check your exposures in RawDigger (after the fact).

If any of the above is even slightly confusing, you need to study the section on Exposure Theory in The Art of Bird Photography (soft cover). To learn how to properly evaluate a histogram, consult The Art of Bird Photography II (on CD). Best idea yet, save $10 by purchasing the two-book bundle here.. Know also that ABP II Is available via electronic download here.

This image was created on 17 January 2023 at La Jolla, CA. While standing at full height, I used the no-longer available (except from BIRDS AS ART) Induro GIT 304L tripod/Levered-Clamp FlexShooter Pro-mounted Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS lens and The One, the Sony Alpha 1 Mirrorless digital camera. ISO 800. Exposure was determined via Zebras with ISO on the rear dial: 1/2500 sec. at f/4 (wide open). When evaluated in RawDigger, the raw file exposure was determined to be perfect. AWB at 9:46:19am on a cloudy-bright morning.

Tracking: Expand Spot/AF-C with Bird Face/Eye detection enabled performed perfectly even at 1200mm. Be sure to click on the image to enjoy a high-res version.

Image #2: Brown Pelican landing — La Jolla hills background

Why You Should Be in Manual Exposure Mode 99% of the Time When Photographing Birds. Period.

If our avian subjects were always set against backgrounds of a single, consistent tone, it would be somewhat easier to use an automatic exposure mode such as Shutter priority (S or Tv), or Aperture priority (A), assuming that you were using AUTO ISO with Exposure Compensation assigned to a convenient dial. If that were the case, you would need only to learn how to properly adjust the Exposure Compensation depending on the tonality of the subject and the size and placement of the very light and very dark tones of the bird. Obviously, that is a tall order. So, first off, working in Manual mode is far simpler.

But, the most important reason for working in Manual mode is that once you have determined and set the correct exposure for the subject, you do not need to worry about the tonality of the ever-changing backgrounds we encounter in nature. Take today’s two images for example. If you were working in Shutter priority as noted above with the bird set against the light gray sky, the proper Exposure Compensation for an adult pelican might turn out to be +1 2/3 stops. If that were the case and the landing bird drops down below the horizon line, the background will always change. In this case, from light sky to the middle toned, out of focus, hills of La Jolla. When the meter sees the darker background, it will increase the IS0 and dramatically over-expose the subject. To maintain a correct exposure, you would have needed to lower the exposure compensation (EC) from +1 2/3-stops to somewhere in the vicinity of +1/3-stop. Nobody, I repeat nobody, is capable of making the needed changes to the EC instantly as the background changes. Note that today’s two featured images were created in the same second.

So, what is the solution? Work in Manual mode. Determine and set the correct exposure as detailed above and every image in a series will be properly exposed regardless of the tonality if the background. If the sun suddenly breaks through the clouds, you will of course need to adjust your exposure. But as long as the light remains consistent, the exposure you have set will be correct for the subject. As noted above, you will need to adjust your base exposure if if the tonality of the subject changes. On size does not fit all. Again, you are referred to both ABP and to ABP II as above.

The RawDigger screen capture for Image #1: Brown Pelican landing — sky background

Ho Hum, Another Perfect Exposure

What can I say? The combination of Zebras live in the viewfinder (with your camera set up properly) and post-capture study of the raw files in RawDigger makes it pretty much child’s play to come up with perfect exposure after perfect exposure. It would be impossible to overstate how much I have learned by studying RawDigger and how much better my exposures have become since I started with the program almost two years ago. The raw file brightness for today’s Image #1, with the G channel almost making the 16000 line, is dead-solid perfect. Note that the 825 Ov-Exp pixels out of 51,000,000 is are totally insignificant. I could not find them even after enlarging the image to the max.

RawDigger — not for the faint of heart …

Nothing has ever helped me learn to create perfect exposures to the degree that RawDigger has. I think that many folks are reluctant to learn that most of their images are underexposed by one or more full stops and that highlight warnings in Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, and your in-camera histogram are bogus as they are based on the embedded JPEGs. Only your raw files tell the truth all the time. Heck, I resisted RawDigger for several years … Once you get over that feeling, RawDigger can become your very best exposure friend no matter what system you are using. On the recent IPTs and In-the-Field sessions, we have demonstrated that fact. Convincingly.

The RawDigger Adapted (pink) Histogram

In the RawDigger e-Guide, you will learn exactly how to set up the Adapted “pink” RawDigger Histogram and how to use it to quickly and easily evaluate the exposure or raw file brightness of images from all digital cameras currently in use. RawDigger was especially helpful to me as I have struggled with R5 exposures and learned my new camera body, the Sony Alpha a1.

RawDigger e-Guide with Two Videos

The RawDigger e-Guide with Two Videos

by Arthur Morris with Patrick Sparkman

The RawDigger e-Guide was created only for serious photographers who wish to get the absolute most out of their raw files.

Patrick and I began work on the guide in July 2020. At first, we struggled. We asked questions. We learned about Max-G values. We puzzled as to why the Max G values for different cameras were different. IPT veteran Bart Deamer asked lots of questions that we could not answer. We got help from RawDigger creator Iliah Borg. We learned. In December, Patrick came up with an Adapted Histogram that allows us to evaluate the exposures and raw file brightness for all images created with all digital camera bodies from the last two decades. What we learned each time prompted three complete beginning to end re-writes.

The point of the guide is to teach you to truly expose to the mega-Expose-to-the-Right so that you will minimize noise, maximize image quality, best utilize your camera’s dynamic range, and attain the highest possible level of shadow detail in your RAW files in every situation. In addition, your properly exposed RAW files will contain more tonal information and feature the smoothest possible transitions between tones. And your optimized images will feature rich, accurate color.

We teach you why the GREEN channel is almost always the first to over-expose. We save you money by advising you which version of RawDigger you need. We teach you how to interpret the Max G values for your Canon, Nikon, and SONY camera bodies. It is very likely that the Shock-your-World section will shock you. And lastly — thanks to the technical and practical brilliance of Patrick Sparkman — we teach you a simple way to evaluate your exposures and the raw file brightness quickly and easily the Adapted RawDigger histogram.

The flower video takes you through a session where artie edits a folder of images in Capture One while checking the exposures and Max-G values in RawDigger. The Adapted Histogram video examines a series of recent images with the pink histograms and covers lots of fine points including and especially how to deal with specular highlights. The directions for setting up the Adapted Histogram are in the text.

If we priced this guide based on how much effort we put into it, it would sell it for $999.00. But as this guide will be purchased only by a limited number of serious photographers, we have priced it at $51.00. You can order yours here in the BAA Online Store.


With all blog posts, feel free to e-mail or to leave a comment regarding any typos or errors.

4 comments to Why You Should Be in Manual Exposure Mode 99% of the Time When Photographing Birds. Period.

  • Steven Schiff

    I find it fascinating that we still have to go through this exposure compensation rigamarole or use manual exposure settings when our cameras have supposedly sophisticated evaluative light meters. The whole idea behind these meters was that they were supposed to detect, and compensate for, the effects of differently-illuminated backgrounds, foregrounds, and other non-subject picture elements.

    Evaluative metering was first introduced by Nikon in the FA camera of 1983. Nikon called it “matrix metering*,” and it broke the scene up into 5 segments, which it evaluated individually. Supposedly it compared the scene with thousands of photographic scenes programmed into its memory and selected a final exposure which would take into account unusual elements such as bright or dark subjects, backgrounds, and backlighting.

    Matrix metering revolutionized photographic light metering, and all cameras of all brands now use a version of it. But it seems that, even with this sophisticated tool at our disposal, we must still override the meter and depend on our our photographic judgement and experience in order to get the best possible exposure out of our cameras in many situations.

    *The FA had what Nikon called AMP, or “automatic multi-pattern” metering. As it was improved and incorporated into additional camera models, Nikon rechristened it “matrix metering,” which is a trademarked term. Other brands have to use different names for their versions of evaluative metering.

  • Richard Curtin

    Believe I prefer #2. Maybe because of such high contrast in #1. Thought it interesting (and a cause of envy in fixed wing pilots) is that on #1, the trailing left wing feathers indicate close to stall/less lift allowing it to be completely level in #2 where both wings have that appearance. They don’t have to worry about installing ailerons. Anyway, the only way of appreciating this is the amazing sharpness of both images.

  • Sue Jarrett

    Image #1 and #2 Brown Pelican landing are both cute and interesting! Just a little difference in the two images backgrounds are also cute and interesting!

  • Ha ha, I laughed reading the “eight zillion coots being a problem” comment. We have a single overwintering coot up here, which makes it a rare bird for this time of year – they are even rather uncommon during season – and the eight zillion mallards in the duck pond it is hanging out in are making it tough to isolate it!

    Ditto on the manual mode being the way to go.

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